Witty pretties push comic boundaries

TV sitcoms are cashing in on the rude and sassy new style of female-centric comedy, writes Paul Harris

Something strange is afoot in the world of the American sitcom. A breed of character has emerged that curses profanely, talks frankly about sex, sleeps around and drinks too much, all while wisecracking rudely with the best of them.

None of those attributes is especially original, except that these characters are all women. A fresh crop of TV comedy shows has hit the US cultural landscape anchored on a new breed of sassy, independent, freethinking woman.

Building on the success of the hit Hollywood film Bridesmaids, which seemed to convince film executives that male cinemagoers would pay to see funny women, America's television channels are now also placing a big bet on a feminine twist to some tried and tested comic set-ups.

They have even raided the worlds of independent cinema and cutting-edge stand-up to get their talent.

First up is New Girl, which stars indie darling Zooey Deschanel in her own show about a woman called Jess who moves in with three men. Though it is an ensemble cast, the show is firmly centred on Deschanel as its main draw.

Next is 2 Broke Girls, which features another star of the independent scene, Kat Dennings. She plays Max, a gritty waitress with a strong line in witty put-downs that have stretched what is previously tolerated on mainstream TV.

In the first show - on the CBS network no less - Dennings' Max responds angrily to a restaurant customer who clicks his fingers at her to get her to come to his table. "You think this is the sound that gets you service," she says, clicking her fingers right back. "I think this is the sound that dries up my vagina."

That line alone inspired a wave of hand-wringing articles in America wondering about current broadcasting standards.

Finally, there is Whitney, a show that stars Whitney Cummings, a rising stand-up comedian who has drawn rave reviews for her routines. Now she has been given her own television show.

The format is standard - it explores Whitney's life as she lives with (and refuses to marry) her boyfriend - but network executives have been promising the show will not pull its punches in dealing frankly with sex and relationships.

"This has been coming for a while. A lot depends on these shows. If people respond well to them, then that is all we are going to see," says Janette Barber, a stand-up comic turned radio host on SiriusXM satellite radio.

"If not, then we'll have to wait another five years to try again."

Of course, there is a long tradition of sassy, funny women in US television comedy. From almost the very start of the genre, major female stars emerged, like Lucille Ball in the classic 1950s show I Love Lucy. In the 70s Bea Arthur starred in Maude as an outspoken liberal, while Loretta Swit was nominated for 10 Emmys during 11 years in M*A*S*H.

In the late 80s Roseanne Barr, as the lead character in Roseanne, took a wisecracking female lead character to new heights. However, those series nearly always placed their female comics in the role of a wife or mother. With a few notable exceptions - such as the TV news comedy show Murphy Brown - they were set against a husband or with a family.

That phenomenon reached its apogee with a wave of comedy shows in the 2000s which seemed to make a fetish of placing attractive, intelligent and witty women in roles where they played second fiddle to often overweight and not especially clever husbands.

Shows such as The King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond and According to Jim were enormously successful using this formula.

"We were seeing a lot of this. The pretty, attractive woman who lives with a schlubby guy. Why did these women marry these guys? They are brighter and more intelligent and more funny than their husbands, who clearly often infuriate them," says Professor Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert at Syracuse University.

The new TV comedies are helping to end that. Here the women characters are not defined by men, even as they fulfil some of the cliches of the sitcom genre: by getting dumped, or trying to bring spice back into a relationship or going on a first date.

They put the woman character first and are building on a number of recent female successes, especially Tina Fey's award-winning role in 30 Rock and the Amy Poehler-led comedy Parks & Recreation.

But the largest influence is the runaway critical and commercial success of Bridesmaids, which starred, and was co-written, by Kristen Wiig. That film blew away the critics with its focus on female friendships and, far more importantly in the minds of entertainment executives, it cashed in at the box office in spectacular style. It notched up US$283 million ($363 million) in ticket sales, on a budget of just $32 million.

No surprise then that TV executives hope to cash in with their female-centric shows. "New things don't happen on TV. They happen somewhere else and TV gloms on to them. The audience for Bridesmaids had a lot of purchasing power and they want a piece of that," says Barber.

That clear-eyed focus on the bottom line is gradually shaking up US television's natural conservatism when it comes to recognising social change. After all, American life is filled with several generations of independent, working (funny) women unconstrained by their men. But TV, many experts say, has a history of being slow to catch up with the society it claims to reflect.

Look at the furore surrounding the coming out of Ellen DeGeneres as a lesbian on her sitcom Ellen in 1997. Gay people in actual public life in America were already prominent and had long won numerous civil rights and social acceptance.

But with these new shows it is possible that the medium is at last catching up with the reality of everyday life.

"We are finally at the point when TV is not so many steps behind. Soon it might even sometimes be a few steps ahead," says Thompson.

However, there still does seem to be a double standard when it comes to female comics. They are not entirely judged on their jokes, but also on their gender, in a way male comics are not. Perhaps the new shows will help change that.

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